Christian McBride: Knocking on the Door
“ I’m knocking on the door and asking to be let in. ”
Christian McBride was talking about the Grammy he received in October, 2011 for his big band album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue, 2011)his first Grammy as a leader and third overall. While the bassist certainly appreciated getting the nod from his peers and from the Recording Academy, he said he gets just as much of a rewardif not more of onewhen he gets calls from musicians he admires asking him to work with them because they like what he does. For example, Ron Carter contacted him recently asking him to put together an arrangement of "Mr. Bow Tie," written in honor of fellow bassist's father, and play it with an ensemble of 12 bassists for "Ron Carter at 75," a tribute concert at Lincoln Center held in March, 2012. Carter could have asked any number of musicians to write that arrangement, but he specifically wanted McBride to do it, and that meant a lot to the younger bassist. "Ron is a tower. He is a pillara pillar of greatness."
Suggesting that the same could be said about McBride himself, he answered with a big laugh, "Nawh. Well, I'm knocking on the door and asking to be let in."
Ask anyone who has been following McBride's career over the last 20-plus years, and you're certain to come away thinking that that McBride has already pulled open that door to greatnesssheared it right off its hingesquite a long time ago. He's renowned for his astounding technique, brilliantly inventive solos, telepathic sensitivity as an accompanist, impeccable time and swing, and the full, rich, powerful sound he gets from his bass. He is deeply steeped in the great traditions of jazz and, at the same time, shows influences from R&B, fusion, and funka protégé of the iconic jazz bassist Ray Brown who also reveres the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Since his arrival in New York in 1989 from his hometown of Philadelphia, the bassist has played with a host of jazz masters, starting with a stint in saxophonist Bobby Watson's band just two weeks into McBride's first semester at Juilliard. Before long, he signed up with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, touring with him for over two years. Another especially important early gig for McBride was with Ray Brown's Super Bass, working alongside Brown and John Clayton in the unusual setting of a three-bass trio. Over the years, he's played with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and guitarist Pat Metheny, among many others. And he's worked with a wide spectrum of collaborators outside of jazz, including Isaac Hayes, Natalie Cole, James Brown, Sting, Carly Simon, the Shanghai Quartet, and Kathleen Battle.
McBride recorded his first album as a leader, Getting' to It (Verve), in 1995, when he was 22 years old, and he has long led his own bands. Inside Straight, the quintet he formed in 2008, has met with enormous success and continues to tour widely. In addition to fronting the Christian McBride Big Band, he also leads a trio, working with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens. Along with The Good Feeling, he had another CD release in 2011, Conversations with Christian (Mack Avenue), a star-studded collection of duet recordings. And beyond his nearly constant touring, active recording schedule, composing and arranging, he's busy as an educator and advocate for jazz. He's Artistic Advisor for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, has hosted his own radio show on Sirius XM, coordinated jazz programming with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, been the Creative Director of the educational organization Jazz House Kids for the last ten yearsand that's just a sampling of his many activities.
All About Jazz: You finished up a tour of Europe with your trio recently. How did it go?
Christian McBride: It wasn't a long tourit just felt long. The travel was really intense. Every day was two modes of transportation or moreeither two planes and a train, or a plane and a train and a drive. It was really back breaking every day. We played every night. We went to Europe on April 22nd from St. LouisI had a gig with my big band thereand I took my trio to Europe straight from St. Louis. And we played, I believe, six or seven straight dates. Then, I flew back to New York to play at the International Day of Jazz concert at the U.N. All in all I was home for three days and then flew back to Europe to finish the rest of the tour. And we finished by playing six straight dates. My manager called me last night; he said, hey a last minute offer came in for you to playbefore he finished the sentence, I said, "no." "But I haven't told you..." I said, "I don't want to know what it is. I am not going anywhere for a couple of weeks."
AAJ: Your CD, The Good Feeling won the Grammy for the big band category. How did that feel? What was it like at the ceremony?
CM: It feels nice to win a Grammy. You know, there are so many great musicians out there who haven't won Grammys that have deserved them. I'm very happy about it, but I'm not the kind of guy who thinks "now I'm a star!" The ceremony was great. They do about 85 percent of the awards before the telecast. I think they give out over 60 awards during the morning and then in the afternoon. When they do the televised portion, that's just basically a concert, and they give out not much more than a handful of awards.
It was great sitting there with Melissa. She screamed and gave me a big, wet kiss when they called my name. We were with all the guys from Mack Avenue Records. For the award that was announced before the big band categoryChick Corea won. So, Chick and Stanley Clarke were on the stage, and they were walking off when the big band category came up. And it was really sweet when all of Chick's family stood up and applaudedbecause I know those guys so welland that was a big thrill. I went up on stage and made my little speech and then went back stage, and they took all these pictures. Terri Lyne Carrington was there; she won also. So, it was a big thrill. And then they had some press person scoop me up and take me to four or five different press rooms and talk to reporters and get pictures taken. It was a whirlwind.
AAJ: You brought the big band to New York in May for the Highlights in Jazz series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Centera fabulous show.
CM: Thank you! If only you knew what was happening before that concert! The music for the band didn't show up until the last minute. Man, I thought I was going to commit suicide!
AAJ: But it came off perfectly, from where I was sitting.
CM: Thank you. That was just the second show we played since the Grammy, but we have a nice chunk of work coming up the month of June and July, so I'm excited. We're going to L.A. to play the Playboy Jazz Festival. We're doing the San Francisco Jazz Festival. We're doing the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware. And then we're going to play for four nights at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in July. So, I figured an engagement like Dizzy'sthat's the perfect opportunity to start breaking in some new material, maybe start putting together some small pieces for the next recording. You know, because you don't want to keep repeating the same stuff night after night after night. So, I'm looking forward to that week at Dizzy's so I can work out some of these new charts. We start July 12th and go through the 15th.
AAJ: At the Highlights in Jazz concert, you had another bassist with you, Ben Williams, featured on your tune "In a Hurry," a real up-tempo flag-waver that had the two of you trading solo chorusesa great finale.
CM: Thank you. I like doing that with Ben. I figure that, to me, Ben Williams is one of the new, young, important musicians to come on the scene. And I really like the way he plays. So, I figured this was a good situation to make him like he could grow and put a little extra heat on himlike Ray Brown and Ray Drummond and all those guys did to me.
AAJ: He was with you also at Ron Carter tribute concert at Alice Tully Hall in March, "Ron Carter at 75." You arranged a piece for a large bass ensemble therewhat was that like?
CM: Yes, a piece for 12 bass players. I really wish I could have stayed for the rest of evening, but that was the night that Inside Straight opened at Birdland, so I played that one song with the 12 basses, which was the opening number of the concert, and then I had to get out of there. So I missed the whole concert. I saw a little bit of the rehearsal. I was flattered that I was asked to write the arrangement. Buster Williams was there anybody could have written that arrangement. And Ron had a specific request that I arrange "Mister Bow Tie," which was a song that he had written for his father. Then I went to listen closely to the tune and I thought, man, that's going to be hard to arrange for 12 bassistshow am I going to do that? But when Ron Carter has a special request, you go out of your way to accommodate him. So, I came up with what you heard and saw that night, and I got a very nice email from Ron a couple of days later thanking me for the arrangementbig thrill...
AAJ: You've done quite a lot of writing over the yearsincluding all the arrangements on the big band CD. How did you get started writing for big band?
CM: I got a commission from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to write a piece for them. They were doing a concert centered around songs of New York, and Wynton Marsalis asked me and a couple of other different musicians to write something about New York. I told Wynton, "Man, I've never written for big band before." I said I wanted to, and it was on my list of things to learn how to do, but I didn't know if I'm ready quite yet. He said, "I'm sure you'll get it together." So, he really forced me into writing for big band a little earlier than I had expected. I always loved big bands. I always admired anybody who could sit down and orchestrate for that many horns. And that's how "Bluesin' in Alphabet City" happened. After that concert, here and there over the course of the next 15 years I had some different writing projectslittle things under the radar. The next thing I knew, I had built up all this material for the big band. And, in the process, I'd like to think that I had gotten better and much quicker at writing for big band. So, I thought, now seems to be the perfect time to go ahead and record it.
AAJ: You originally wrote a number of the compositions on the CD for smaller ensembleslike "Shake 'n' Blake" as a duet with Ron Blake and number that you recorded with Inside Straight. How would you compare the experience of writing for small groups and large ensembles?
CM: I'm starting to wonderif I ever get the disciplineif the big band could be my main band one day. Because I'm really starting to hear layers all the time now, and when I started taking songs like "Shake 'n' Blake" and "The Shade of the Cedar Tree" and "In a Hurry" and started expanding them for big band, it seemed really natural. So I actually plan to see how far I can take this big band.
AAJ: Who are some of your influences for big band writing?
CM: Oh, everybody. Anybody who has made any music remotely connected with a big bandthat's who my influences are. On the liner notes of The Good Feeling, I included a list of people, being facetious, saying "just to name a few," and it almost took up the whole page.
AAJ: Well you mention Duke Pearson in particular.
CM: Right. My arrangement of "I Should Care" is basically an arrangement of his arrangement. Duke Pearson is a big influence. I probably would have to say Oliver Nelson may be my biggest influence. I think a lot of people, even in the jazz world, are asleep about how important he was in the '60s and early '70s, not just in jazz but in the commercial world, writing for television and film. I guess he just never really had the opportunity to write the big Hollywood movie score like Quincy Jones or Lalo Schifrin did, but had he lived, I believe he would have eventually gotten there.
AAJ: About the musicians in the big bandI noticed that saxophonist Steve Wilson was counting everybody off at the beginning at the Highlights in Jazz concert.
CM: Well, the lead alto man is the man, and for me, Steve Wilson is unequivocally the man. He is probably the most focused and professional musician I've ever known. You know, he approaches every situation the same way. It could be some little small gig in a supermarket with maybe five people, or we could play in front of 15,000 people at Yankee Stadium. He approaches every gig the same exact way. And I totally respect that about him.
AAJ: And Nicholas Payton is also in the band.
CM: Yeah, it was really sweet. Nicholas and I have worked together on and off for years in a lot of different contexts, and my original intention was to just have him play on the CD. But Nicholas kind of volunteered himself. He said, "Well, if you're going to have me play on the CD, why don't you just have me do the gig?" We were going to play at Dizzy's a week before we made the recording, just so that we could kind of warm up and get everything together. So he made the gig with us at Dizzy's, and then we went straight into the studio, and you saw him again at that concert.
AAJ: He's been kind of on people's minds lately with some broad statements about jazz. Where do you stand on that?
CM: Yeah, I have pretty broad statements on jazz, too. I'm not quite sure I would come off as incendiary as he has, but, you know, I agree with him on many issues regarding what jazz is. I once said that jazz now seems to be the only kind of music where a mistake can be changed into a concept and then be applauded for it. Now, on the one hand, that could be good, because a mistake could be something like, "Wow! I didn't know that could work! Check that out!" Somebody like Herbie Hancock can get away with that. But it's almost likeif I gave you a guitar, and I said, "Here, play a tune for me." And you say to me, "But I don't play guitarI don't know what I'm doing." I say, "Well, play it anyway." And you get up there and play the guitar, fumbling and stumbling; you're getting your fingers all in the wrong place. Jazz is the only kind of music where there's one out of five people that will listen to you and go, "Wow, he's got something there! Yeah, that's different!"
It's so easy to fool people in jazz. And you can't do that with any other style of music. You can't do it. What I love about playing with a lot of musicians in the funk and R&B world is that you can do anything you wantkind of like jazz. You can play any kind of weird chord changes. You can sing anything you want, as long as it's funky. As long as it's got some power behind the groove, you can put anything you want in there. So, I like that. When you mess around playing European classical music, even if you play something more so-called modern or cutting edge, I think even the untrained ear can tell when you're faking it. But in jazz, you can really get away with a whole lot.
AAJ: It's funny you bring that up, because at the Highlights in Jazz concert, you were introducing the song "I Should Care," and you made a joke about playing in free-jazz style. And then, during that song, when it came time for Loren Schoenberg to take his tenor sax solo, as a joke, he started out his first couple of bars sounding like Albert Ayler.
CM: Which was amazing, I thought. It was amazing because I'd never heard him do that before. I didn't even think he knew how to do that. Just the contrast of it was brilliant, I thought, for those first two bars.
AAJ: And then, when it came time for your solo
CM: I had to do the same thing. I had to steal his idea.
AAJ: You also work with Loren at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
CM: I've been working with Loren and the Museum now for seven years. Loren and I have a very long relationship. We first met in 1990 or '91, something like that. He was leading the American Jazz Orchestra down at Cooper Union. And he called me for a gig. I knew who he was, and he tracked me down, and we worked together. That was also the first time I played with Steve Wilson. And we did all of the music from Miles Davis and Gil Evans projects. Dick Katz played piano and Kenny Washington played drums. It was a very memorable gig. Jimmy Knepper was in the trombone section. And Loren and I always kind of loosely stayed in touch ever since, and we started working together at Jazz Aspen in the summer of 2000. I was the Artistic Director; he was the Educational Director. And we had such a nice rapport in Aspen. He had already been working with the Museum for a couple of years, and he said, "I think we need you. Come up to the Museum, and let's work together. Let's build this from the ground up." So, at that time in 2005, it was nothing like it is now. The entire museum was our back office space. But the free programs that we helped implement in those early days, kind of put the Museum on the map. "Jazz for Curious Listeners"I did a whole month of session in that series in Decemberand "Jazz for Curious Readers," and particularly "Harlem Speaks," that's been a very popular program. I enjoy it. It's much, much bigger now; we have a very powerful board. We have our approval to move into a new building, and hopefully, we'll be in there by 2015the old Mark 25 building, which is directly across the street from the Apollo Theatre. So, it's been something to watch how it's grown over the last seven years. And the same thing is happening now with Jazz House Kids.
AAJ: Yes, that's the jazz education program for young people that your wife, Melissa Walker, foundedshe's the Executive Director and you're the Creative Director.
CM: Right. It seems like in the course of the last five years, it's just really exploded. Melissa's really put the pedal to the metal, and she is getting out of it what she puts into it. I always think this is a good lesson for people in general. If you really, really focus on something that you want, you can get it, if you work hard enough.
We just did our annual "Inside the Jazz Note" master class June 6 at Montclair State University, and we've the tenth anniversary gala coming up on October 17th at NJPACthe New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Diane Reeves came in for "Inside the Jazz Note," working with the Jazz House Kids big band along with the members of Inside Straight. I always love when younger instrumentalists can hear a vocalist's point of view. In jazz, nobody ever wants to hear what the singer thinks. It's like, "You guys aren't musicians, you're just singers." But they can't do that to Diane, because they now that Diane can lay something on them. So, it was exciting to have her there, and I just love working with her anyway. She's one of the greatest singers of all time. I don't think anybody can deny that. And as far as this day and age is concerned, she may just be the greatest jazz singer on the planet.
And then, on October 17th, I'm also excited about the Jazz House Kids' tenth anniversary gala at NJPAC. My big band will be the house band, and we have some serious special guests coming in. We have Angelique Kidjo; we have Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley; we have George Duke; and we have Maurice Chestnut, the great tap dancer. And we're hopinghe's not going to play; it would be great if he didbut we're hoping we can get Wayne Shorter to come so we can give him a lifetime achievement awardhave him come back to his home town. I'm really excited about that. I can't wait to see these students' faces when they hear Maceo and Fred Wesley play all that funk up close. I know they won't know what hit 'em.
AAJ: Melissa is also featured as vocalist with your big band, too.
CM: Yes. I'm always teasing her. I say, don't let Jazz House Kids let you forget why you originally got in this business in the first place. I'm glad that she has a vehicle with the big band to still sing.
AAJ: She was great on the three songs she sang at the Highlights in Jazz concert.
CM: "When I Fall in Love," "The More I See You," and "Bright Lights, Big City."
AAJ: How do you approach arranging for a singer in the big band context?
CM: Well, it's actually not that difficult because a lot of the big band stuff I love listening to is stuff with vocalists. Beyond Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, the Count Basie band, and all the great instrumental big band material, some of my favorite stuff is Basie with Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole with the Stan Kenton band, all of the early Ellington stuff with Ivie Anderson, and all of Ray Charles' recordings. So, I've followed that lead when it came to writing for vocalistsall those great Nelson Riddle and Ella Fitzgerald recordings. Knowing what Melissa likes and knowing what was going to be the general personality of the band, I kind of knew where to take it. And I think I've learned a lot not just from the older legendary arrangers, but also from current legends people like Maria Schneider; John Clayton; Billy Childs, who I think is brilliant; and Gil Goldstein. They've all said one of the big early humps you hit when you're learning how to arrange is over-arranging, because you're trying a lot of different things, and you want to prove to people you can write. So you just start dumping the whole kitchen sink into the arrangement. You have to learn that there's nothing wrong with space, as a general rule. Listening particularly to those Sinatra recordsI mean, such a perfect use of space. All of his arrangers had that, under Sinatra's direction, I'm sure.
AAJ: Another key member of the big band is Ulysses Owens, Jr.
CM: The drummer is the bassist's best friend in any band, in any genre. If the bass and drums are not one instrument, then the entire band will suffer. So, in starting any band, really, I start from the drums. When I knew I wanted to put together a big band, my first thought was, who's going to play drums? It's a lot different driving a sports car than an 18-wheeler. Who do I know who can do both? The list is terribly short, because in modern jazz, a lot of drummers seem to come from the same place.
I was trying to think of somebody whonot so much played like Sonny Payne or Papa Joe Jones or Grady Tate, but at least was familiar enough with the languageknowing how and when to set a rhythm up, knowing when you've got to step on the high hat a little harder so the rest of the band can hear itreal big band experience. And it seemed to me that Ulysses was the right person. There's no irony in the fact that he actually did play with the Basie band for a short period. I dig working with him in a big band.
AAJ: How about your own playing in big bandswhat other big bands have you played in over the years?
CM: Well, I've never played in anybody else's big band on a regular, steady basis, but anybody who's had a big band in the last 20 yearsI'm sure I've played with their band at least once or twice. I've done a number of gigs with Maria Schneider's band. I even sat in as John Clayton with the ClaytonHamilton Orchestra. As a matter of fact, when Queen Latifah did her last jazz recordings, I guess it's been about five years ago now, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra was the band, but I played bass, because John did all the arranging and conducting. And when I was programming for the Los Angeles PhilharmonicI was Creative Chair for Jazz from 2005 to '09 I would say two-thirds of the programs we put together involved some sort of a large ensemble. That was another way I got my chops polishednot just playing in a big band, but my writing chops, too.
CM: That's a good word. It's one of those pieces where I think you try as an artist to get out of your own headto try to write outside of yourselfthat's the phrase I've always heard used. I've heard a lot of actors use that phrase, like in acting school, and musicians as well. Again, talking about those guys like Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin, John WilliamsI've always been inspired by action-adventure and dramatic film music. So, I think that was my subconscious audition for writing for, like, a Dreamworks film or something like that.
AAJ: You mentioned at the Highlights in Jazz concert that if there was anybody from CBS, NBC, or ABC in the audience, you're available. Seriously, though, do you have any interest in writing for TV or film?
CM: If I ever do get to do that, I actually wouldn't mind if it were a little later in life, because I've heard some horror stories from musicians I know who've written for major films and television. It's no longer about your music. In the producer's eyes, the music is a very small part of the picture.
AAJ: The title, The Good Feelingwhere does that come from?
CM: I don't know, just a random phrase that came to mind when I was thinking of the overall vibe of the project. It just seemed right to call it The Good Feeling.
AAJ: You have another recent CD out, Conversations with Christiana series of duets. You've also got the podcast interviews on iTunes and the Sirius XM radio show that tie in with that, correct?
CM: What happened was we decided that when I would go into the studio to record a piece of music with my duet partners, I would also interview them. The interview would become a podcast, and the musical performance would be on the CD. So, the podcast and the CD are kind of together. And then there was the radio show on Sirius XM, a live performance radio show kind of based on the same format. So it got a little confusing in trying to explain the difference between the CD, the podcast, and the radio show, because roughly they're all the same thing.
AAJ: The CD has you teamed up with 13 different partners, including five different piano players. You've got Billy Taylor, Hank Jones, George Duke, Chick Corea, and Eddie Palmieriall strikingly different kinds of performances.
CM: It's hard to believe that both Hank Jones and Dr. Taylor would pass away so soon after we recorded. I knew Hank had been on the decline leading up to the last six months or so of his life. But Dr. Taylor, that surprised me a little bit. I knew he had heart surgery, but I had seen him after that, and he looked like he had never been touched. He looked like the same Dr. Taylor. He hadn't lost any weight. His face was still full, and his skin was beautiful. And the next thing I know, he's gonecardiac arrest. So, you just never know sometimes.
AAJ: So these recordings were done over some time, then.
CM: Oh, yeah. It took over the course of a year. We started doing the first duets I believe in December of 2008, and we did the last one in around early 2010.
AAJ: The recordings with Hank Jones and Chick Corea are interesting contrastswith Jones, "Alone Together," an American songbook classic, and with Corea a loosely structured improvisation.
CM: Yeah, it was no structure. That's what I love about working and being around somebody like Chick. I mean, I'm sure Dr. Taylor or Hank Jones would have done it also, but with Chick it's just a little different. We went into the studio, and he says, "Well, what do you want to play?" And I said, "I thought we could just freely improvisewhatever happens, happens." And Chick said, "Great, let's do it." Again, I'm sure that Hank or Dr. Taylor would been game for that, too, but I think the results would have been a shade different than what they were with Chick.
AAJ: You do a James Brown tune with Dee Dee Bridgewater, "It's Your Thing."
CM: That seems to be the hit off the CD. I've gotten more requests for that. I get emails from radio programmers, "Oh, man, 'It's Your Thing'we play that every day!"
AAJ: And you play one of your own compositions, "Sister Rosa," with Russell Malone, who you played with in a trio setting in February with Monty Alexanderpart of a two-week stint Monty did at the Blue Note.
CM: That was so much fun. That gig was so rockin.' Man, I love playing with Monty. He's a one-man big band.
AAJ: He introduced you as "Ray Brown's sonplus!" They billed that show as "Triple Treat Revisited," after Monty Alexander's Triple Treat trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis.
CM: I was using one of Ray Brown's old basses for that gig. Ray diedhe owned three basseshis wife kept one, I have one, and John Clayton has the other.
CM: No, but it was the bass I used at the Blue Note with Monty. And we recorded that also. So, I'm dying to hear that. I cannot wait to hear that. I love being around Monty. He's a real guy's guy when it comes to rhythmand sports. He's a huge sports fan, especially boxing. So, when we're together, we're either talking about R&B or Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown or Muhammad Ali. Great guy to be around.
AAJ: So, for the Triple Treat show, did you try to evoke Ray Brown's playing style at all?
CM: Well, you know musicians don't do that. You do what the gig calls for. But once a year, actually, sometimes couple of times a year, members of what we call the Ray Brown familyyou know, Benny Green, Gregory Hutchinson, Russell Malone, Karriem Riggins, Jeff Kaiser, Marlena Shaw, Jeff Hamilton, whoever it might bewe do a series of Ray Brown tribute concerts. This year I think will be the first year we won't get together and do it, although the year's not over yet. Last year we did it with Benny Green and Greg Hutchinson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. So, Ray Brown is still very much alive. His spirit is still alive in all of his former band members who are still here. And so, we get together and try to do that at least once a year.
AAJ: So, where do you do it?
CM: We usually do it for the Blue Note. We did it for Jack Kleinsinger one year. We've done it at Yoshi's out in Oakland. We did it in St. LouisJazz at the Bistro. We did it in Detroit for the jazz festivalnot last year, but the year before. I definitely got to get my Ray Brown fix in.
AAJ: When did you first met Ray?
CM: The first time I met Ray Brown, Benny Green and I were together in early 1991. Benny had met him once before in the mid '80s. He and I were playing a duo gig at the Knickerbocker in the Village. Ray was working at the Blue Note. At that time, Benny and I had the same manager, and she knew Ray Brown extremely well. Mary Ann Topper is her name. She told us earlier in the evening, she said, "Ray has got to hear you guys. You guys are incredible. He's going to love you guys. You guys are coming out of the old school mode that I know he's going to love." So, she got him to come over after he finished at the Blue Note. I couldn't believe it. And knowing what I know now about being on the road, usually, once you've played a long gig, the last thing you want to do is go hear more music. You just want to go somewhere where it's quiet, have a drink, and cool out. But he came and heard us. He heard our last three songs, maybe. And he was so kind. We could see he was a little tired, because he'd been working all night. But he gave us some words of encouragement. He was really sweet. He invited us down to the Blue Note for his final night, which was the next night. And I will never forget this as long as I live. He acknowledged us over the microphone. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce to you these two young men I heard last night, and for only two guys, they were swinging like dogs." I had never heard that phrase before, so I started laughing my head off. Swinging like dogs?!
AAJ: How long had you been in New York at that point?
CM: About a year. A year and change. A year-and-a-half, because I moved in the summer of '89.
AAJ: Tell me about your work with Ray Brown.
CM: Super Bass! Ray put together a group with myself and John Clayton. We were his appointed children. And we did Super Bass (Telarc, 1997) 1 and [Super Bass, Vol.] 2 (Telarc, 2001). Super Bass 1 we recorded in Boston in 1996. Super Bass [Vol. ]2 we recorded in 2000 at the Blue Note.
AAJ: Have you had any thought about doing a project with three basses yourself?
CM: No. I have a hard time believing I could ever do that again after playing with John and Ray. If I did do something like that, it would have to be radically different from what we did with Super Bass. I would have to get together with William Parker and Mark Dresser, which I would love, toodo something different.
But in terms of the style of what we did with Super Bass, I don't think I could do that again. As a matter of fact, we tried playing this was funnyright after Ray Brown died, we did one of those Ray Brown tributes at the Blue Note. I think Benny Green was on itBenny Green and Gregory Hutchinson. John and I tried to play the Super Bass material without Ray. I remember Milt Jackson's wife Sandy and their daughter Chyrise were in the audience, and after we finished the set, I remember Sandy came over and she said, "I've got to talk to you. Don't play that Super Bass stuff." She said, "You guys need Ray. Don't do that anymore." I said, "Yes ma'am."
AAJ: You mentioned playing Ray Brown's bass for the Monty Alexander gig. What other basses do you play?
CM: I have Ray's bass, and then I have my regular bass, which I've been traveling with now for almost twenty years, which is actually in the shop right now getting overhauledjust a hundred thousand mile checkup. The one that I usually use is a German bass, built in 1920estimated 1920. Ray's bass was actually built in the Philippines, I believe. That bass was actually built, I believe, like, in the '80s. So, it's not an old bass, but it's a good bass. I've only had the bass for, I guess, two years now, and I don't get to use it quite that often. I'm going to have to take it to David Gage's shop in the Village to check it out and get the specs on it.
AAJ: You have a very distinctive, personal sound in your playing.
CM: A lot of musicians always say, these are your instruments: your hands, your lips, your breath. That's your instrument. Surely, if you have to change instruments every night, you might sound a shade different from night to night. But look at somebody like Oscar Peterson. He had to play a different piano every night. It's not like he traveled with a piano in the back of the station wagon. He still sounded like Oscar Peterson.
AAJ: How is it that you've developed your soundso fat and full, getting everything out of the instrument? There are other bass players out theresome great masters, toowhere you hear more of an emphasis on the string.
CM: When I first moved into town, it was during an eraa kind of "back to the future" era, where a lot of acoustic bass players were playing with no amplifier. We were trying to learn how to develop our sound with just the instrument, instead of using the amp as a copout. But then, some of us started taking it a little bit too far, started raising the strings way too high, and it became like a testosterone fest. How far can you move the mike away from your bass and still be heard? How high can you get your strings up without your fingers bleeding? It turned into some real dumb, "man" stuff for a little while.
But I think that actually helped me a little bit, because I was able to learn how to set my instrument up to where I was still able to get a good chunk of flesh into the string, but not kill myself and still be heard. And the greatest thing was being around Ray Brown. You know, who had a bigger sound than Ray Brown? I got a chance to hear him up close so many times and could hear that. Even though he used an amp, very little of the sound was coming from the amp. The amp was just a little tiny shadow to outline the natural sound. And I think that's what amplifiers should be for. Particularly if you're playing small group improvisational music where it should be organic sounding, natural sounding.
AAJ: We talked a good bit about the big band and your Conversations with Christian duets, and you did an interview for All About Jazz some time ago that focused on your quintet, Inside Straight and the CD, Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2009). You've also done a lot of work with your trio with Christian Sands and Ulysses Owens. Will that be continuing, too?
CM: We just recorded, so I know that the trio is going to wind up getting a whole lot of workI certainly hope that the trio would get a lot of work once the recording is released in the fall. Christian Sandsman, I have not been this excited about a musician probably since the first time I heard [vibraphonist] Warren Wolf. Christianhe just turned 23 a couple of days ago, and he has so much wisdom for his age. He's still 23, very much all of 23. He still listens to a lot of popular music. He does things 23 year olds are supposed to do. But when it comes time to play the piano, he all of a sudden turns into a very old man full of wisdom. He's always asking questions, but, I mean, he listens and watches more than he asks questions. That's what I used to do when I'd be around a lot of the older guys. I'd just watch, and eventually all of my dumb questions would be answered without me having to open my mouth. And I think Christian is like that because he spent a lot of time around Dr. Taylor. He was one of Dr. Taylor's last protégés. He got to be around Hank Jones, and he got to be around Oscar Peterson. So, he got to be around the three titans of jazz piano while he was still a teenager.
AAJ: How did he get to do that?
CM: Well, because he always had so much talent as a teenager, I guess he ran into these musicians going to gigs, watching them play. That's the way to do it. He's hungry. He goes and he follows all of the baddest cats around.
AAJ: How did you meet him?
CM: I met Christian on Marian McPartland's radio show on NPR. I got a call to come in and sub on Piano Jazz, and I asked Marian who the subject was. She said, it's a young kid named Christian Sands. I thought, OK. I'd never heard of him, but I said, "Well, if he's on your show, he must be pretty good." My manager and I went to the studio, and we heard him warming up. He sounded really good. It was funny, because I was thinking, "What do you ask an 18 year-old who hasn't really had any gigs yet? I can't stretch this out for an hour." But on one of the breaks I heard him play somethinghe played some really fast stride piano, and he played this Oscar Peterson lick at top speed. I can't remember what song I called but it was something fast. And he said, yeah, let's play that. And he played that tempojust nailed it. And then I said, let's play a ballad. And we played a ballad very, very slow, and he nailed that. And I thought, "You know what? I'm going to be a pain in this kid's behind." And I guess about a year or so later I asked him to sub in Inside Straight because Peter Martin, my regular pianist had to miss a couple of gigs, so I called Christian. We've been playing together pretty much ever since. He's such a bad little dude. I love him to death.
Christian McBride, Conversations with Christian (Mack Avenue, 2011)
Christian McBride Big Band, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue, 2011)
Chick Corea/John McLaughlin, Five Peace Band: Live (Concord, 2009)
Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Kind of Brown (Mack Avenue, 2009)
Pat Metheny, Day Trip (Nonesuch, 2008)
Christian McBride, Live at Tonic (Ropeadope, 2006)
Chick Corea/Steve Gadd/Christian McBride, Super Trio (Stretch/Universal Japan, 2006)
Diana Krall, The Girl in the Other Room (Verve, 2004)
McCoy Tyner, Illuminations (Telarc, 2004)
Christian McBride, Vertical Vision (Warner, 2003)
Ray Brown/John Clayton/Christian McBride, Super Bass 2 (Telarc, 2001)
Uri Caine/Christian McBride/Ahmir Thompson, The Philadelphia Experiment (Ropeadope, 2001)
Christian McBride, Sci-Fi (Verve, 2000)
John Scofield, Works for Me (Verve, 2000)
Christian McBride, A Family Affair (Verve, 1998)
Christian McBride/Nicholas Payton/Mark Whitfield, Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock (Verve, 1997)
Ray Brown/John Clayton/Christian McBride, Super Bass (Telarc, 1997)
Chick Corea & Friends, Remembering Bud Powell (Stretch, 1997)
Joe Henderson, Joe Henderson Big Band (Verve, 1996)
Christian McBride, Number Two Express (Verve, 1995)
Stephen Scott/Roy Hargrove/Christian McBride, Parker's Mood (Verve, 1995)
Joe Henderson, Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve, 1995)
Christian McBride, Gettin' To It (Verve, 1995)
Roy Haynes, Te Vou! (Dreyfus, 1994)
Joe Henderson, Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Verve, 1992)
Pages 1, 7: Anna Webber
Page 2 (Top): Courtesy of Christian McBride
Pages 2 (Bottom), 3-6: Herb Scher
Page 8: Leo Montgomery